So I am currently in London, part way through the first of a mad pair of weeks encompassing a meeting, two conferences, a couple of days in the archives and two days with the BBC at the Great Yorkshire Show. To ease myself in, I began Monday morning with a wander around the Enduring War exhibition at the British Library.
This is an ambitious exhibition, given the size of the space it occupies. Divided in to six sections, from the ‘The Call to Arms’ to ‘Grief and Memory’, the exhibition not only tries to tell a complete story of the war, but as a contributing partner in the Europeana 1914-1918 project, attempts to do it from an international perspective. Inevitably, some things are missed, while others are under-analysed. For instance, the caption to one photograph ends with the statement ‘There was an increase in Protestant church attendance in Britain in the first weeks of the war but, for a number of reasons, this was not sustained.’ There is no indication as to possible reasons why church attendance was not sustained, leaving this viewer with a sense of incompleteness.
In fact, the section on ‘Faith Under Fire’ is possibly the least satisfactory of the six. The claim about the prevalence of protective charms and rituals is never really demonstrated, in part because the use of the library’s resources places limits on what is available for display. The original manuscript of Ruper Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ in the first section is extraordinarily moving, but there is no equivalent of, say, Adolphus, the mascot who has become the face of the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. Excellent use is made of posters, particularly in illustrating the Russian perspective, and the use of ANZAC trench journals makes a double point with an elegant lightness of touch. Nonetheless, the material on display does not consistently feel capable of carrying the full breadth of the story that the exhibition is attempting to tell. Indeed, so broad is the narrative that it isn’t always evident what the curators understood by the exhibition’s subtitle, ‘Grief, Grit and Humour’. All three elements are addressed episodically but don’t really feel as if they are the central thread of a coherent narrative.
Having entered the exhibition from the side, and followed the chronological path to the dead end around a corner in the separate space that houses the section on ‘Grief and Morning’, I ended my visit by deliberately walking back around to look at the audiovisual displays at the front entrance. And here the exhibition managed to produce what was for me its most powerful and moving display through its series of video booths of montages of postcards from the front, the accompanying audio just the messages scrawled on each one. Very simple, yet entirely mesmeric, the displays demonstrate the art of the everyday that, as much as the war poets, artists and musicians whose work is, once again, presented throughout the exhibition, defined the First World War as a profound cultural experience in Britain and across Europe.